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News / Clark County News

Homeless Crisis: Rep. Paul Harris’ bill to use vacant state land for shelter doesn’t pass but prompts talks

Clark College president expressed concerns about proposal to use site near school

By Alexis Weisend, Columbian staff reporter
Published: February 20, 2024, 6:07am
3 Photos
Built as a visitor information center and rest stop in the early 1980s, this restroom building and parking area along Interstate 5 near Clark College has been closed since 1995.
Built as a visitor information center and rest stop in the early 1980s, this restroom building and parking area along Interstate 5 near Clark College has been closed since 1995. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The city of Vancouver has big plans to solve its homeless crisis — a 150-bed “bridge shelter,” a second Safe Park and a fifth Safe Stay. But those plans may be too big for Vancouver’s dwindling available public land.

So city officials have been trying to get creative by working with state and private land owners.

Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, caused a stir after he said the city of Vancouver could use vacant state property, a former visitor information center near Clark College, for the bridge shelter should a bill he sponsored pass.

However, that bill died last week. House Bill 2172 would have let local governments use vacant state property during an emergency. Vancouver declared homelessness to be a civil emergency in November.

The president of Clark College, Karin Edwards, told lawmakers at a legislative hearing she was unaware of these plans and that she has safety concerns about a shelter near campus.

Clark College employees have voiced concerns they’ll lose access to the silver parking lot, which has the only accessible parking for those with disabilities at the women’s softball facility, according to a statement from the college.

The bridge shelter would disrupt long-term planning for the college’s facilities and cause students to feel unsafe, the statement said. The city considered building a Safe Stay near the college in 2021. Clark College officials were uncomfortable with the idea, so the city dropped the plan.

“Upon hearing the proposed plan to establish a Safe Stay shelter near the campus, faculty, staff and parents of the Running Start program have expressed concern about the proximity of the homeless encampment to college property. Hosting a bridge shelter right next to our fields would likely heighten their concern, alienate students and potentially impact enrollment,” the statement said.

The property isn’t off the table yet, according to city officials, but there were also never any official plans to use the site.

“We weren’t planning full steam ahead for that property because we didn’t have permission to do so. No due diligence had been done. It has just been a general property that we thought might be able to work,” said Jamie Spinelli, the city’s homeless response manager.

Spinelli said the city would not eliminate accessible parking if the bridge shelter can be built on the property, and the city would work with Clark College to mitigate any issues.

Aaron Lande, the city’s program and policy manager, said the city is struggling to find city-owned property that can host any of the upcoming projects.

As a result, the projects are moving slowly while people living in tents continue to endure a chilly winter.

“There’s a reason we only have the first two Safe Stays on city-owned property,” he said.

The other two transitional housing communities sit on private and Washington State Department of Transportation land.

Even if the city finds a slice of usable land, it might not work well for a shelter, Spinelli said.

These communities should be close to transportation and services residents need to get permanently housed. There are also technical considerations, such as sewer hookups and water.

“It’s just not as easy as finding a vacant piece of property that the city owns,” she said.

People may see plots of vacant land while driving around, Spinelli said, but most of that land is privately owned.

City officials hope private land owners will offer to work with the city. Although neighbors tend to feel concern whenever the city announces a shelter will be built near them, officials point to their four Safe Stays and one Safe Park as examples of success.

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When the city’s first Safe Stay, The Outpost, opened, police calls to the area dropped by 30 percent, according to city data. The city also bans camping within 1,000 feet of the Safe Stays, which neighbors have said reduces visible camping in the area.

Spinelli said she tries to have one-on-one conversations with people who are worried about the idea of a shelter near them and address their concerns.

“We’ve been very intentional about ensuring that these spaces are assets,” she said.

Once the city finds locations for these projects, Spinelli plans to move quickly. She hopes to be able to bring people who are particularly vulnerable to disease or weather indoors as soon as possible.

But she knows the projects won’t end homelessness in Vancouver. At the same time Vancouver is housing people, more residents are falling into homelessness. In 2022, more than 2,400 people accessed homelessness programs in Vancouver, according to Council for the Homeless.

“Let’s be clear, we have several hundred people outside, so 150 beds is not going to eliminate 100 percent of camping. But it can make it more manageable,” she said.

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.